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Using Data to Transform Instruction

Fond Du Lac School District logo and a map of Wisconsin

Fond du Lac is a public school district in Wisconsin whose mission is “to promote high achievement and foster the continuous growth of the whole child so that each becomes a creative, contributing citizen in a global society by providing personalized learning opportunities in a safe, nurturing environment.” Here, educators from the district share their UDL story of how they used data to transform their instruction.

‘Not All Kids Were Going to Make It’

In Fond du Lac, the leadership team analyzed their district’s proficiency data and found that almost 18% of their students were receiving special education services. There was a significant White/Black opportunity gap and an overidentification of students of color for special education. “We knew from the onset that not all kids were going to make it,” says Shannon Schultz, the district’s special education instructional coach. District Equity Coordinator Laurice Snyder adds: “We wondered if our schools were actually giving students what they needed.”

“Using data to inform decisions is critical for UDL. The data can help generate where there is a need for change that UDL can help us address.” 

—CAST Professional Learning team

With this data in mind, Shannon and the district’s director of pupil services, Katie Moder, attended a weeklong professional training in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) led jointly by CAST and the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the summer of 2016. Funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, their goal was to learn how UDL might be implemented to support their students—all of their students.

The one big idea that resonated with Shannon and Katie the most was to “design to the edges” as an approach to better serve all of their students. This UDL mindset shift was fundamentally different from Fond du Lac’s traditional approach: The barriers to learning were not inherent in the students, but in the design of classroom instruction and in the system itself. Designing to the edges could help teachers create better learning experiences that enabled every student to access and engage with the content.

‘Using Data to Inform Instruction’

With the UDL mindset, the Fond du Lac team members looked again at their data to discuss how they could shift instruction to improve access and engagement for all students. They used multiple sources of data, not just raw data and student scores. The data sets included student surveys to better understand what students needed as well as commonly used formative assessments to triangulate the gathered data. UDL transformed the kinds of questions they asked when they looked at their data: Instead of wondering what they needed to fix in the student, they began to focus on how they would shift the design of instruction. 

“We had to reframe our focus on how we would provide access and engagement to every student to achieve the standards,” says Katie.

Now when they looked at the multiple sources of data, they asked:

  • How is the curriculum culturally relevant? 
  • Is there a hidden curriculum based on White, middle-class values that students have not experienced yet? 
  • Are all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, included in the instruction? 
  • What do we do if a student is not progressing—how do we shift instruction? 

The UDL Guidelines gave the team a common framework to use as they collaborated with each other. Different departments collaborated to design more options in their lessons to meet the needs of all of their students. Together, they worked hard to truly understand the standards they were teaching. The meetings were filled with teachers sharing what was working for them, as well as where there were still barriers in the learning. Actionable steps were discussed to reduce those barriers. Here is a video of a third-grade team meeting where the team used student work to ground the discussion and to brainstorm strategies to support learning.

‘Finding the Joy in Learning’

While the Fond du Lac teachers used the standards to drive instruction, they also worked to engage students in deeper ways. Shannon says, “It doesn’t have to be paper-and-pencil work all of the time, it can be creative and active. We want kids running through the doors when they come to school, fired up to be here.

In its UDL work, CAST has adopted Ertmer & Newby’s definition (1996) of expert learners as “purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed.” Together with students, we can discuss what expert learning looks, sounds, and feels like in our different disciplines. We can work with students to include options that support them to develop the habits and practices of expert learning.

The team focused on CAST’s expert learner descriptors and discussed how UDL challenged them to think about whether they were developing expert learning in their students: “We want to give every learner the chance to be experts in whatever their interests are,” says Shannon.

The Fond du Lac team members continued to use data to look for evidence that their lessons were supporting each and every student’s development as an expert learner. Teachers surveyed their students and used these responses to measure engagement. They asked students what they needed and taught students how to use different tools and strategies to support their learning. This video shows how a third-grade student had access to flexible options within an inclusive math classroom. “This UDL mindset challenges us to think about how we are supporting every student to become an expert learner—and this makes everything I do worth it” says Shannon. “We see students with a greater sense of urgency to want to learn and to be willing to take risks. We started to see more of the joy in learning.”

‘Support UDL Implementation Across the School’

“The school system can also grow, learn, and become an expert at learning just as students and teachers can. This requires continual revisiting of the goals, collaboration opportunities, multiple sources of data, and feedback.”

—CAST Professional Learning team

The Fond du Lac team recognized that UDL implementation takes time and they started sharing information about UDL in small ways across their school. First, they brought in the K–2 teachers and worked with the UDL Engagement Guidelines. Then, they partnered with grades 3–5 and included the UDL Representation and Action & Expression Guidelines. Finally, they worked to bring on all of the K–5 teaching staff. 

The team identified the following as critical steps to successful UDL implementation: 

  • Know the “why” for staff buy-in. Educators need to know the “why”—the big picture—before they can dive deeper into UDL and its details. Initially, Fond du Lac’s “why” was inclusion. Now, it’s equity. 
  • Engage administrative and school leadership support. In early implementation, Fond du Lac didn’t have a lot of support among school leaders and administrators, but they recognized that this is a necessary element for any successful systemic change. Principal Kari Saunders recommends administrators support educators to implement UDL by:
    • meeting with instructional coaches and specialists to plan and reflect on UDL-related professional development sessions,
    • attending grade-level professional learning community (PLC) meetings, and
    • modeling UDL within the staff meetings, which means making sure there are clear goals, flexible options, and opportunities for staff to develop as expert learners.
  • Participate in ongoing professional development. “One and done” UDL training or a single UDL conference does not promote deep learning. Fond du Lac team members tried to be more deliberate about engaging educators in ongoing collaboration. Here is an example of their one year UDL implementation timeline
  • Make UDL a part of the vocabulary in the team meetings. When UDL becomes part of the common language team members use to speak about instruction, the team has a greater chance of success in planning and delivering inclusive opportunities for all learners.
  • Monitor data. Keep data at the center: use multiple sources of data, such as portfolios, surveys, test scores, and formative assessment checks. The UDL Guidelines can provide a helpful lens for looking at data and for discussing ways to adjust instruction.

This story was made possible through funding from CAST’s Founders Fund and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

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